Higher Education: The Questions of the Cross Examination

Higher education is in the dock in 2014. The questions are flying. Why does it cost so much? Why does it cost more each year? Why do so many students not finish? Why can't graduates get good jobs? Why is higher education not equally accessible to all? Why is it not doing a better job training teachers for K–12? What do we have to show for the trillion dollars in student loan debt? Who will repay it? And why do some universities seem to be living in luxury on accumulated endowment while still charging exorbitant tuition?

These are fair questions. Shame on higher education that we have not been more proactive in explaining ourselves. Shame on higher education that we have not stewarded more cautiously the public funding that has been readily available over the past several decades. Shame on higher education that we have kept too much in our proverbial ivory tower writing and speaking only to each other, all too often leaving graduates to fend for themselves after they "walk the line." Higher education certainly owes the public some answers.

If this trial is to turn out well for the public, and not simply serve certain short-term political purposes, there are other questions that need to be asked in cross-examination. 

Let me suggest a few:

  1. How long since the government spent as much on education as on prisons or on the military? And how long since there has been as much sustained public scrutiny on prisons and the military as on education?
  2. What is the cost of not getting a college education — both for the individual and for the public? For a few child prodigies, getting a college degree might have been unnecessary. For most young men and women, however, not having a college degree will double their chances of unemployment in a recession and decrease their average lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  3. How much federal regulation of higher education will truly serve public interests? American higher education is still one of the most admired systems in the world. It hardly seems coincidental that — unlike most of the world — we don't have a national system of higher education. The strength of American higher education has been linked to its diversity; its ability to serve multiple populations in a pluralistic society, its ability to provide opportunities for "late bloomers," its ability to draw funding from both the public and private sector and its capacity for self-regulation through peer accreditation. 
  4. What are truly the best indicators that higher education is doing its job? Higher education may well need to ratchet up its accountability structures. It is not at all obvious that that will best happen through federal regulation or a one-size-fits-all rating system. At best, such a federal standard, by its very nature, will squeeze our diversity and create unequal burdens on institutions depending on the socio-economic populations they serve. Furthermore, the current proposed standards would almost certainly create a disincentive for graduates to go into lower-paying positions of public service. At worst, it leaves us with the same challenges of "affordability" and "accessibility" and far fewer individuals and institutions with a vested interest in meeting those challenges. Whatever these best indicators are, they must reckon honestly with the inherent tensions between making education excellent and making education universally accessible. While no one in American society wants elitism for its own sake, and while everyone deplores the inequalities sustained by networks of privileged familiarity, we will not be better off as a society with standardized, lowest-common-denominator mediocrity. Whatever these best standards are, they must reckon with the multiple visions of what constitutes success and a "good life." To measure the quality of an institution by the incomes earned by graduates within a defined period following graduation, as the current government proposals suggest, is to fail miserably to understand the range of motivations that drives our most intelligent and best educated young people. Not everyone takes the highest-paying job he or she can get. Further, there is no correlation at all between the jobs that are most essential to the public good and the salaries of those positions. For starters, compare the salary of a public school teacher with the salary of a professional football player. 
  5. What is the public purpose of higher education? To listen to the current administration, it is all about fueling the economy through job training. Certainly that is important, but it is far too small a vision of the public role of higher education. For many individuals and communities, colleges and universities provide their only affordable access to the arts. Colleges and universities nourish democracy through preparing broadly educated citizens with a sense of public duty and community responsibility. Colleges and universities provide students with practice in civil discourse; practice in forming communities where diversity is a strength rather than a source of conflict. Colleges and universities are repositories of memory and hotbeds of research and innovation. They are primarily responsible for developing the intellectual capital of the next generation. When they are doing their job, they typically fuel the critical thinking that helps keep all of our public institutions at their best.

Higher education in 2014 may be getting what it deserves. It is paying the price of having been a law unto itself for too long. We can only hope that this moment will be a wake-up call, motivating higher education beyond defense of its privileges and self-interest to constructive engagement with the public's questions before it loses the opportunity. For everyone's sake, we hope it is not already too late.

Shirley Mullen has been the president of Houghton College (www.houghton.edu) in Houghton, NY, from 2006 to present. She has held positions in both teaching and administration in higher education for over 35 years. She holds Ph.D.s in both philosophy and history.

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